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  • Position : Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation
  • Affiliation : Russian Foreign Ministry
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Sergey Ryabkov: «Let’s not be driven by false illusions – that is my point. Let’s be considered, and focused, judge not by words, but by actions and work constructively»

10.02.2017

MOSCOW, FEBRUARY 10, 2017. PIR PRESS — «Let’s not be driven by false illusions – that is my point. Let’s be considered, and focused, judge not by words, but by actions and work constructively», — Sergey Ryabkov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

Relations between Russia and the USA is an axis of the global security. New administration headed by Donald Trump started working in Washington. His statements made during election campaign and first days in the presidential seat cause cautious hopes for the change in the vector of bilateral relations and renewal of the full-scale dialogue on global and regional issues. Moscow perceives the words positively, but for a long time does not believe in words.

Are Russia and the USA destined to be in conflict? Results and lessons of the reset. What could serve as a start for the renewal of relations, and what is useless to offer? Would American plans on missile defence and nuclear triad modernization change, and whether Moscow is ready to update its approaches to the dialogue on strategic stability? What practical steps expects Russia from the new American administration? Perspectives of the dialogue on cybersecurity, advices on Iranian nuclear deal and principles of resolving the nuclear dead end on Korean peninsula.  

These and other issues were covered by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Ryabkov during the meeting with the members of the Trialogue International Club and in the interview to Albert Zulkharneev, Director of PIR Center.

Sergey Ryabkov:

“NOTHING IS PREDETERMINED. LET’S JUDGE NOT BY WORDS, BUT BY ACTIONS AND WORK CONSTRUCTIVELY”

Eight years ago, when Barak Obama’s administration came to power, there was a joke that Russia is ready to hire a bodyguard for the new American president, lest something happen with him — so high were the expectations from the new democratic administration. These expectations were mutual and during some period of time were supported by practice. But, as we see, the results of the last eight years are quite disappointing both for bilateral relations and for the cooperation on the issues of global security. What are the reasons for such turn of events?

When we sum up what was done in the course of the eight years of our relations with the Obama administration, we could say that we actually witnessed two different administrations under his leadership.

The first four years passed under the slogan of “reset”. And this term was actually coined by the Americans themselves, specificaly by the Special Assistant to President Obama, Michael McFaul, who was, of late, American ambassador in Moscow.

That was the time when we had reached some highly important agreements, and I am convinced that those agreements still positively influence our relations. Those agreements were like the anchor that does not allow our relationship to sail away in this stormy weather. Among them the START 2010 agreement is of course the foremost one, in accordance with which both countries should reach the basic level of warheads by the 5th of Feburary, 2018 – so practically within a year.

However, during the second presidential term for Obama, the American side was taking a ‘step-by-step’ approach towards the destruction of the foundation of our cooperation. In our opinion, it was connected with the conceptual problem of the political establishment in Washington: notwithstanding all the political signs and promises that were given to us before, they failed to recognise Russia as an equal partner, whose opinion it was necessary to take into consideration. Moreover, they actually thought that it was a serious challenge that the Russian positions on the international stage became stronger, and they began using different instruments of pressure against Russia.

We could recall that before the Ukrainian crisis — it is no coincidence that I am mentioning it, because now when people speak about sanctions, they recall Minsk agreements right away — which is somewhat of a distortion of the facts. I remind you that the first package of sanctions was connected to the Magnitskiy Act of 2012 — two years before the events in Ukraine and Crimea.

Approximately at the same time the Obama administration and the law enforcement agencies of the U.S. started a notorious hunt for Russian citizens all over the world. We can recall the outrageous cases of Viktor Bout and of Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was snatched by DEA agents and put onto a plane with a black bag put onto his head, although he was not connected with any drug trade through Liberia or any other country.

The relationship started to deteriorate faster and faster, and maybe this is the worst time of our relationship since the Cold War – although it could be argued that it is worse – and this deterioration has been coming faster since the coup in Kiev and subsequent events in Crimea and the Donbass. It is worth poinitng out that the Obama administration did not wait for the results of the development, but in the first couple of months after Crimea started a course of systemic containment of Russia. That included not only the restriction of bilateral contacts, dismantlement of the cooperation mechanisms, but also a sudden expansion of the sanctions regime which became the administration’s only tool for working with Russia for the next two and a half years.

As for the situation now, 172 Russian citizens and 350 legal entities, including companies, banks and other organisations are under American sanctions. I am not going to bore you with statistics for all the hostile actions in different spheres and the gigabytes of unacceptable rhetoric that we have to deal with.

President Trump is starting his term. What are your first impressions and forecasts on the development of Russian-American relations? Would our approaches to the work with Americans change?

We would like to hope that changes in the White House would allow us to reverse the dangerous trend of degradation of Russian-American ties. We follow with great attention all the words that Trump has said and says about Russia. And of course, we appreciate the words with regards the importance of dialogue between our countries. The determination of both parties to do something about this unsatisfying situation  in the bilateral affairs was also stated in the phone conversations between Putin and Trump.

Regarding our approach, the President of Russia emphasised many times, that we are open for the pragmatic cooperation with Washington on all issues. Such cooperation, however, must be conducted with respect to the balance of interests, without any attempts at blackmail or at the imposition of one’s will. But the initial data is not sufficient to make a far-reaching conclusion. It is necessary to trace and analyse the activities of the new administration. The first steps of the administration are quite serious and significant, and they are under analysis right now.

In order to determine foreign policy priorities and the approaches regarding specific issues, the new resident of the White House would need some time, we understand that, especially given that currently Washington is going through the deep and massive change of the senior executives of all main agencies and departments.

With any new development in the situation, it is highly important for us to have a realistic assessment of the situation, and we should not look at the situation through rose-tinted glasses. I should assure you that we have no illusions that with Trump the “new life” will start, or that the situation will suddenly make an U-turn.

Rhetoric of the presidential candidate is one thing, the actual work of the president assumed office is totally different. His capabilities are vast, but still constricted by domestic politics and relations with allies. Are you not afraid that facing such reality Trump would quickly change his attitude towards Russia?

We understand that it is going to be very difficult to sort out all of these obstacles made by the White House in recent years. The interparty consensus regarding an anti-Russian approach that asserted itself among Washington elites is not going to disappear any time soon either. We are most likely going to see the attempts to “bring Donald Trump to reason” and return him to the “mainstream” with regards to the approaches to Russia.

These attempts are currently the main content of the dialogue by the heads of many European countries, leaders of the European Union and NATO with the new American administration, when they discuss Russia and relations with it. Those European politicians who are talking about certain prospects of the “Russian meddling” in the European elections, for example, have for the whole last year been attempting to interfere in the internal affairs of the U.S., when they promoted Hillary Clinton. They failed, so now they are trying to indispose Trump against Russia in the Clinton style. It is quite sad, but not unexpected, and we are going to deal with this reality. You cannot change people. They solemnly believe in their own impeccability.

We noticed that in the U.S. Congress, at the time of the transition, they have this attempt to codify the worst of Obama’s legacy regarding Russia. I am talking of course about the bill codifying sanctions brought by Obama’s decrees and toughening of those sanctions. It is not clear what kind of schedule there is for this draft legislation, given that in the Senate they have one version of legislation sponsored by Cardin, Menendez, McCain, Rubio, and others and in the House of Representatives they have a slightly different version. I am not sure about the procedure, whether it will be unification or different tracks – it is not clear yet, but fact is fact. In any case, because of the anti-Russian mood, we are acting under the assumption that even the hypothetical Presidential veto on the final version could be overcome by Congress.

So the removal of sanctions is out of the question and is not even on the agenda?

We are not going to ask for the removal of sanctions, or discuss any criteria, and we have never done it before.

One of the popular Twitter accounts mused with the idea of lifting snctions in exchange of nuclear disarmament. What would you say to that?

It is absolutely unworkable. First of all, we do not discuss the sanctions, and we never will. Some of you may smile, some of you may nod, but that is how the thing are. Second, how can we “change” removal of sanctions to disarmament? It means that we are to disarm unilaterally. It is absolutely a non-starter.

What first steps could be made to renew relations?

Practically we need to at least reinstitute the channels of communication that in most spheres do not work since the decision of Washington on March 14th to freeze the Presidential Bilateral Commission.

It is understood that we are not going to reinsitute the whole system, which consists of 21 working groups, but at least we need some kind of reset of the system of communications between different ministries and agencies.

What kind of agenda could be in the “common basket”?

I hope we will be able to cooperate on counterterrorism issues. At the time of Obama, Washington has started fighting ISIS - however reluctantly - after the terrorists conducted several terrible actions. But the outgoing administration until the last day, clearly covered Jabhat-al-Nusra [a terrorist organisation banned in Russia – Ed.] and relied on it clearly to oust the regime in Damascus. But Al-Nusra is a Syrian branch of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group, which organised the terrible 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, in which 4,000 civilians were killed. It means that Obama administration supported terrorists, but in the U.S. it is a criminal offence.

The degree of political surrealism recently is already very high, but this is actually too much – and this continued for many years.

It seems that Donald Trump looks at the situation differently, and he conveyed that the main problem of Syria was the terrorism which created a safe haven for itself in the country. We agree with that. But what will happen in reality is a big question for now.

On 28th of January, in the course of the phone conversation, both Presidents admitted that a lot depends on our countries with regards to keeping up global security, dealing with the acute regional problems, and dangerous challenges – especially terrorism.

Moscow is ready to have a full-scale conversation regarding global security, including the issues of strategic stability and acute regional problems – but only if the U.S. is going act upon the basic principles of mutually taking into account interests of each other and not inflicting damage on other participants.

If both parties look at the situation constructively, we could find new opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation in the investment, technological fields, and trade. The commercial turnover kept decreasing – but according to the latest statistic we can see a universal trend — it stopped decreasing and started to rise gradually. Leading American companies did not leave the Russian market - notwithstanding the urging from Washington - but rather still continued with cooperation in our country.

The contacts in the cultural and humanitarian field and people exchange are still in demand. This year is actually the year of many anniversaries – if there is mutual interest those could be jointly celebrated. Here, I am talking about the two-hundred-and-tehth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the U.S., the two-hundredth anniversary of a Russian squadron arrival to Hawaii, the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Alaska Treaty, and the eightieth anniversary of the legendary flight by Chkalov.

The relationship with the U.S. is at crossroads. The specific work will be constructed step-by-step in a course of the dialogue with the Republican administration, and depending on the readiness of this administration to implement the election promises of the President.

Let’s look closer on the issues of strategic stability, nonproliferation and arms control. As experience shows, the progress in the Russian-American dialogue on these issues is possible when the relations between two countries are either flourishing, or when they have reached the dangerous point, such as Caribbean crisis. Right now we have a chance for improvement of relation. Will it influence the Russian approaches?

I am going to tell with all responsibility here because I am dealing with these issues officially, that despite the changes in the U.S. administration we have no change regarding the position that we have to take into consideration all factors which influence strategic stability in the course of the future dialogue on it. These factors include the creation by Americans of a global ABM system and the development of a START involving non-nuclear elements within the framework of the concept of the second Prompt Global Strike, issues with the U.S. abidance of the INF treaty, increasing threats of the deployment of arms in space, and perseverance and in some cases increase in the quantity and quality disbalances in the conventional weapons. All of these elements must become part of the future dialogue. It is not clear how the Trump administration is going to deal with these issues, and it is too early to discuss it. 

You already mentioned the strategic stability issues, we know that one of the President’s first executive orders was the executive order on the greater structuring of the forces – also including the ABM aspect. So, is he going to positively influence the European segment, and could it be positive for us? Is there any concern in Moscow with regards to the decision to provide greater financing for the armed forces?

I said that we are prepared to continue dialogue – provided that all these factors, as listed above – were taken not just into consideration, but factored into any possible movement on the issue of strategic stability. So, the question of possible cooperation is well beyond the horizon, and well beyond what is conceivable at this very miserable stage at which our relationship finds itself right now.

More broadly, the issues of how to reshuffle and modernize – probably even to reconfigure the overall U.S. military posture, in the world and in Europe, in particular – are issues that attract our utmost interest, and keen desire to accumulate more information and more assessment on where the U.S. is supposed to go.

The general impression on our part is that the new administration is in no mood to dramatically change anything with respect to the U.S. missile defence plans: maybe, with slightly more emphasis on mainland territorial defence, with the consequences yet to be determined and analyzed. But generally speaking, I think the Republican administration - following the transition of Republican administrations in the past – will effectively boost the missile defence programme, in terms of capabilities, maneuverability, rapid deployment, the naval component, and everything else, including possible forms of cooperation with other countries including non-NATO member countries.

It is way too early to say anything with respect to the so-called “European segment”. As I said, we are not currently discussing these issues in any form with the Trump administration and we have not done so since long ago with the previous administration.

More generally, I think the U.S. are on the verge of considerable efforts towards modernizing the strategic triad. Those plans were announced closer to the end of the Obama administration. I do not believe there is any point to see any palpable major changes in these plans under the Trump administration. Most probably, to the contrary: even controversial elements of the plans announced by Obama, would be financed more effectively, if you wish.

You know of course how much the new administration tries to follow the effectiveness and efficiency of budgetary funding of defence programs, but in no way will less money be given to this programme. This is just one example. It is hard to speculate on these issues, and it would be very irresponsible. That would not be an area where America would look inward, that is for sure. I think the idea that the U.S. security can only be assured and guaranteed globally – this idea is there with everyone in the modern U.S, and the new President will definitely follow this, as well.

I think we will also see a continuation and not a discontinued effort along the lines of what was agreed in Wales and Warsaw at NATO summits. Now, it would be interesting to see what kind of decision the forthcoming so-called “mini-NATO summit” in Brussels — it is yet to take place, again, it is not certain — but if this will take place, whether it will produce any additional colors for this picture, or any further emphasis here and there.

That would be an early signal on how the Trump administration maintains the idea of a different rebalancing, if you wish, within NATO. Would American side repeat its many statements and assurances which we should also take note of: of the “indispensable character”, of “this most successful military alliance in history”, and so on, which has been highlighted in the EU during the most recent contacts by Trump and his people with some European leaders only in recent days. In the earlier year it was called “an attempt to indoctrinate”.

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump spoke critically about the JCPOA. He said that he, at the very least, will try to modify it. There is - at least - provisional resentment of congressional Republicans towards the deal. So, in this context, do you foresee a crisis of the JCPOA? And how could Russia react?

This is one of the areas where we see a very assertive new administration. Time and again, we hear signals and messages that do not promise good for the JCPOA and its integrity. I, personally, do not think that it would be thinkable for a new administration to, “withdraw” from the agreement and to offer something very new and very different, and to offer to start it from scratch. What I think would be possible is an attempt to “remedy” what they believe are some deficiencies in the JCPOA, and for that matter, also in the UN Security Council 22/31. I think it may well focus on the issues of introducing additional intrusive control and monitoring measures on different Iranian sites.

My best advice to the U.S. colleagues who would deal with this: do not fix what is not broken. If anyone tries to reopen this, it would be a Pandora’s box. That is not because we have invested so much in terms of political will or efforts, or work hours: that is our job, so we are not complaining. I would say that it is, well, too risky to try to renegotiate something as serious and strive for new conditions. Another thing would be if the new administration decides to propose something while being well aware of the response they will receive from Iran. That would be a very undesirable and negative development that may only add troubles to the inflamed region of the Middle East.

The Iran nuclear program is quite an issue, but what is more troubling for us is the situation on the Korean peninsula. The new President said the he was going to have direct negotiations. They had some nuclear testing in September, and it was relatively unnoticed. It was noticed by experts, of course, but not by public opinion. The situation seems to be some kind of deadlock. So, what are the prospects, from your point of view – what is your vision of the situation with regards to North Korea and the U.S.?

I do not believe that anything like the Resolution 22/70 was ever produced by the Security Council, and it only shows the magnitude of the shared view of the international community that the nuclear test was an unacceptable event, to the detriment of international security and deeply damaging to the international non-proliferation regime and those who want to strengthen this regime.

More politically and diplomatically speaking, I think that firstly, the JCPOA is not applicable to the North Korean situation for several reasons. The premises were very different for the JCPOA: the North Korean level of progress in the nuclear area is incomparable to that of Iran. This should be taken into consideration by everyone who is involved there.

Secondly, for the JCPOA to happen, two things were very clearly in place which made a difference: the arrival of a new negotiating team and new leadership in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the “moment of opportunity” for the Obama administration, which was not yet in lame-duck status, but already saw less risks domestically to bet on something like this. And we do not see anything even comparable to this situation in the North Korean case.

Number three: it is necessary to take into account regional circumstances. We do think that the Pyongyang leadership wants to conclude a peace treaty with the U.S. Whatever is to happen in the political and diplomatic domain, in terms of North Korea, it should be conducted in a situation of relative peace and quiet around the peninsula. This will, in turn, require the utmost restraint on the part of those in the region who, after a series of actions on the part of North Korea, tremendously increased the pace of activities in different areas spanning from naval and airlift exercise, ground-based exercises, forthcoming deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea. We are talking on this with everyone in the region, including with North Koreans but also with the Chinese, the Japanese, and the leadership of the Republic of Korea.

Whether it would be six-party talks or some different format is, in my opinion, a secondary thing. We are hopeful that whatever configuration, the prerequisite to find a solution through dialogue and peaceful means without provocation and escalation of any sort would be observed. We have offered, some time ago, additional ideas on how to eventually introduce some rudimentary measures of confidence-building, transparency — not, frankly, in high demand in this part of the world. Good services are offered, and we will see what will happen.

Again, like on the issue of the Syrian settlement, we would need to see who will do things, in practical terms, in Washington before we know more on this. Everyone else, including the new administration, of course including our Chinese friends, including our Japanese colleagues, we are prepared to share our part of that burden.

We have already talked about the alleged attacks by hackers, it is a big topic in the U.S. Do you see any prospect for cooperation with the new administration on cybersecurity? There has been some progress with Obama, in his first years. How do you see this topic developing?

Our offer is to have a real round of expert consultations on an inter-agency basis with everyone involved, which hopefully would bring more clarity of things that are troubling. There are undeniable areas of trouble, especially if we are talking of cybercrime, theft of data, and things which relate to breaches of intellectual property rights. Also, issues that were highly political, they can also be discussed, and we have said many times that we are ready to do so: but it should be done not through endless debates — that is not a debate, it is megaphone diplomacy in the worst sense of the word. That is on the table and it will not be withdrawn.

We have our questions to ask the U.S. side. You have seen several references by different people, including Patrushev, Peskov, and many others, over attacks on Russian sites and Russian resources. We are not trying to make this into yet another political problem. We are not doing so with the U.S. This is fully on the table, and we will continue to pursue this agenda.

We have discussed specific questions, now I would like to ask a more philosophical one. You mentioned an anti-Russian consensus in Washington, but one must admit that in Russia, we have a similar consensus regarding the U.S. Many political scientists assert that normal relations between Russia and the USA are the relations of a light conflict, which should be controlled and not escalated. In other words, when Russia is weak, relations can be good, but when Russia is in a stronger position, such kind of a rivalry is inescapable. Do you think that this theory is valid? Is the logic of Russian-American relations predetermined by the long term historical or geopolitical factors?

I truly think it is not predetermined. It is not so that one can draw conclusions out of the history of our relationship; that this or that situation is similar to how we saw things some time ago. Although, in many case, it can be proven right, nonetheless. In the area of arms control, the conventional wisdom has always been that for Russia, it would be easier, at any time, to deal with Republican administrations than with the Democratic ones. Meanwhile, the New START — the START 2010 — the key functional bilateral treaty in the area of strategic nuclear and arms control, was concluded with a Democratic administration, not a Republican one. Or look at what the Obama administration considered to be the good results of its 8 years in office — JCPOA, Syrian chemical disarmament — again, with very considerable Russian roles in these achievements, was achieved with a Democratic administration, and not a Republican one.

I think that it would be possible, at least, to achieve a plateau of stability in some time with the Trump administration. How high or low this plateau would be remains to be seen, but after a period of these extremely tumultuous changes, and tremendous deterioration in our bilateral relations, we would need a reflection period to begin with, and then a very measured and considered construction period, which may well end at some point – but then again, it would not be a reason to see it pessimistically altogether.

I would say that we are open to anything and everything to the extent to which the other side would be ready to go, based on the principles of equality and respect for the interest of each other. That is a mandatory ingredient in this statement. Maybe people, especially those who have followed the Moscow-Washington relationship for decades, say that we have these ups and downs, that time will heal, and that this oscillatory relationship is inevitable — that the U.S.-Russia relationship is haunted by this law of nature that physicists follow on their screens. I think that this is both right and wrong, because after each and every fall and downturn, it is much harder, politically and psychologically, to have a new upswing.

Nonetheless, we are determined to move through our part of this journey and to arrive at a situation when we would be able to see that American approach has significantly changed in comparison with what was the case in 2015 and 2016.  When it will happen, if it will happen, I do not know. But, counterterrorism, Middle East issues, bilateral interaction in areas that are to the benefit of both sides, whatever you may mention here, are bring us to working mood.  We will have several segments of a very promising character where, for obvious reasons, we have lost much of our time.

Let’s not be driven by false illusions – that is my point. Let’s be considered, and focused, judge not by words, but by actions and work constructively.

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